Some historical events are so profound and traumatic that it takes society a great while to assess them. The Holocaust is clearly such an event, and it has taken artists many years to begin to examine its legacy. The number of artists involved has been rapidly increasing in recent years, fueled partly by a new interest in political art in general.
Six years ago, the Minnesota Museum of American Art organized a show of contemporary art about the Holocaust. The exhibit, called Witness and Legacy, has been on tour across America ever since, stopping at places as far flung as Savannah, Georgia and Oklahoma City. Last month the show arrived at its last stop, the Frye Museum in Seattle. The timing, so close after the events of September 11, gives the exhibit an even greater emotional resonance. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
This Holocaust exhibition is ambitious, uneven, and sprawling. In a first for the Frye, it includes installations and videos as well as painting, sculpture, and photography. It contains much art that would not stand well on its own, and at least a few artists shown as much for who they are — survivors or children of survivors — as for what they have produced. Fortunately, with so much artistic intelligence at work, moments of insight and transformation do occur.
One such insight is to be found in the work of photographer Debbie Teicholz, whose enormous monochromatic panels line the exhibit entrance. Her photos depict ordinary landscapes with ominous undertones. In one set of images, bleached, contorted branches lie in huge piles on a muddy field. Teicholz is showing us how deeply the effects of the Holocaust have permanently altered our perceptions, for no one will look at these elegant, seemingly innocuous photos without seeing mounds of bodies and limbs in their mind’s eye. It is a sort of collective flashback effect, and it settles in a with a bit of a jolt.
Another moment of insight is offered by the sculptural installation of Shirley Samberg. Ugly by any objective standards, the group of life-sized figures made from crude burlap cloth are colorless, faceless, and armless. They huddle in contorted, suffering poses on the floor, indistinguishable by age or sex. Here the message is unmistakable — intense suffering dehumanizes, strips us of our singularity, reduces us to the most basic level of existence . Ugliness comes with the territory.
Even more rooted in personal suffering, the surrealist paintings of Samuel Bak somehow retain an odd beauty. Bak was one of the very few Jews to emerge from the ruins of the Vilna ghetto at war’s end. From his childhood experiences as a survivor he has created a distinctive language of loss and discontinuity, focusing on displaced figures and ruined artifacts in a treeless, timeless landscape. In the painting Last Movement, a group of soldiers plays a string quartet amidst the debris of wartime. But all of the instruments are missing strings or structure, and one is just a violin-shaped cutout. These odd men, who also sports make-believe wings, are nonetheless intent on their task. In their attempt to harmonize without instruments, to soar without wings, this wartime quartet suggests faith in the possibility of spiritual and aesthetic flight.
Installation art has emerged in recent years as a favored medium to take on tough political issues. But it is one thing to create an installation on feminism or the environment, quite another to take on the Holocaust. What capability we might have to respond to the enormity of the terror and destruction is dependent on engaging our empathy and our imagination. When a room attempts to literally simulate the interior of a cattle car — complete with straw on the floor — or the dark pathway to a camp, we are mostly made aware of being in a made-up place in an art museum. Few hearts will be moved by a bit of painted lumber and explanatory signage.
A more interesting enterprise is the quixotic project of an earnest young artist named Seth Kramer. In a video that is one of the most unexpectedly affecting moments in the show, he is seen attempting to count out six million grains of rice, one by one. As the piles grow, tally sheets multiply and months and months pass by, we get a fresh glimpse of the scale of the disaster. Each one of those grains was a life! After one year and one million, Kramer bids the camera farewell, saying he has to get back to his counting. In his grim dedication he exemplifies the courage and sense of mission artists must have to confront this particular region of hell.